Friday, July 16, 2010


Fifty years ago, on July 11, 1960, a book was published that came to have enormous impact on millions of Americans and indeed, on readers worldwide. The book was "To Kill A Mockingbird", by Harper Lee.

I can't remember when I first read the book, although I do know it was not for a school assignment. And I don't know how often I have re-read it. But I do know I have been touting it as my favorite book ever for a good 40 years. It has been called "America's novel".

Reading TKAM gave me my first exposure to great Southern literature. My first exposure to the character of a plucky young Southern girl. My first exposure to a "Southern Eccentric" (Dill). And most importantly, a first exposure to the hard cold fact that justice is not aways served.

Bookstores around the country have planned anniversary celebrations this summer, some including showings of the eponymous 1962 film. Harper Collins has put out a 50th anniversary slip cased edition for a surprisingly low price of $25.00.

Harper has also created a special website for the celebration - - which includes a chance to win a 50th Anniversary Prize Pack of books and DVD (easy online entry!), suggestions for book club discussions, resources for teachers and a listing of events (although many took place on July 11, there are still a lot scheduled for the remainder of July and August).

(Lee, who is now 84 and famously reclusive, is not involved in any of the anniversary events.)

"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee"
by Charles J. Shields

For anyone re-reading TKAM this summer (or reading it for the first time ever!), here are a couple of books to read along with it:

I have read and thoroughly enjoyed "Mockingbird", Lee's biography, in which I learned these facts: that her full name was Nelle Harper Lee (she was called Nelle by friends and family) and that she was robbed of a well-deserved co-authorship of "In Cold Blood" by her "supposed" longtime friend Truman Capote ("Dill" in TKAM).

"Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of
To Kill A Mockingbird" by Mary McDonagh Murphy

Our library doesn't have this book yet but I have put it on reserve. In it, such famous people as Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey share the impressions and effects the novel has had on them. I am sure I will find that they will describe their feelings way more eloquently than I can.

I think my experience of the book is summed up by the cover blurb on the edition shown at the top of this post: "The timeless classic of growing up and the human dignity that unites us all."

I read a comment somewhere on the web by a woman who, although she liked TKAM, declared that it was not a perfect book. I disagree. I think it is as close to perfect as a book can be. There is not one sentence, not one word, that does not serve a purpose or help to bring the book forward.

TKAM can be read on so many levels. On one level, it can be seen as a rousing good story, but it is also a classic example of a coming of age book. It slides effortlessly into another time (1930s) and place (the Southern U.S.) as easily as slipping into a river on a blistering summer's day. It contains some of the most fully-limned characters ever put on page. It is an affecting portrait of an upstanding man, whether he is being the lawyer or the father. It is a blistering commentary on (the lack of) civil rights in America.

I didn't know if I would re-read the book this summer or not. I didn't have to re-read it to perfectly remember the first line: "When he was nearly 13 my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

I didn't  have to re-read it to conjure up the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, or the characters of Scout and Jem, Atticus and Calpurnia, Miss Maudie Atkinson and Miss Stephanie Crawford, Dill and Boo Radley. They are my neighbors, Maycomb is my town.

I didn't need to re-read TKAM to remember Scout finding little gifts in the knot hole of the tree on the corner, or her hilarious late appearance on stage dressed a cured ham, or her taking that sickening tire ride up the sidewalk to Boo Radley's front steps. I vividly remember the night Jem had to leave his pants snagged on a fence, and the children sitting in the colored gallery at the courthouse. I'll never forget the benighted walk from the high school to home on that memorable last night.

I think the main things I came away with after all my readings of TKAM are that class has nothing to do with money, but with "the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down", in other words, acting with grace under pressure. And that the definition of courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin with but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." And most of all, that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, a creature that does nothing but please us with song, or another creature who only watched over "his children".

In the end, I did re-read it again, yesterday, just so that I could spend some more time in that world where it was hotter then that it is now, and when people moved slower than they do now. The world of scuppernongs and azaleas, barefoot overalled children and tin bucket lunch pails, of Miss Rachel's "Do-oo Je-sus" and Atticus' dry wit, Calpurnia's colored church and children playing outdoors from morning 'til night. I had forgotten a few things, such as how unintentionally funny Scout was, and that even a confirmed tomboy can learn when it's essential to behave: "After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I." 

Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus

TKAM the movie was made with much care and sensitivity, and is an excellent and faithful companion piece to the book. I understand that Lee herself wanted Peck for the role, and as we all know, she made a fine choice.

I have often wondered why Lee never published another book (she worked on at least one other for years), but then again, when you write a near-perfect book on your first try, there's no need to write another.


Róisín said...

What a lovely post; your utter and totally deserved admiration for the book really shines through. I remember being really little (maybe six) and watching the film one rainy Saturday afternoon. Years later when I read the book I remembered the film clearly, and I realised that even though I was just a small kid and too young to really understand it, it'd still had a profound effect on me. It really is one of those lifetime must-reads. And I agree with you too about Harper Lee never publishing another. Just look at JD Salinger; his second was slated.

Autumn Leaves said...

This rates amongst my favorites of all time too, Julie.

Anonymous said...

I loved the book and I've read it twice. I also loved the movie. Thanks for a great post. Another favorite of mine was 'Grapes of Wrath' although it was very depressing.

Maritzia said...

TKAM was always a favorite of mine as well. I always thought it a wonderful, anti-racist book. Recently, though, I read an article at Racialicios that made me take a long hard look at the novel from a non-white perspective. While I don't entirely agree with everything the writer posted, I find that after setting aside my own prejudices, that he was right about some of the racist symbolism in the book. That doesn't mean that I don't still recommend the book to people, because it is still a book I love to read. But I do try to discuss the book from more than just my own white perspective.

It's a good article. I highly recommend it to everyone.

gma said...

You are a fast reader. I'd like to re read this book but would read it slowly. Pondering scenes and savoring atmosphere is one reason I don't read very fast.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking well of my biography of Harper Lee. That's very kind of you.

All best, Celtic Lady,

Charles J. Shields

ebrarian said...

On the question of why she never wrote another book, Harper Lee told Oprah, "Well, honey, I already said everything I had to say."

Celeste Bergin said...

the entire Harper Lee/Truman Capote relationship is wierd. Obviously they had synergy...and it is sad that their collaboration went haywire later. How could they write masterworks together but never give one another credit?
I enjoyed this post....remembering my huge crush on Gregory Peck. I wanted him to be my Dad.

Lila Rostenberg said...

I'm so glad you wrote this post! You have shared many insights.
I'm thinking of watching the movie on HULU tonight....[lets you watch movies and TV shows on your computer for free]. I could read the book but then I wouldn't get to see Gregory Peck....hmmm.

Shopgirl said...

I did not read the book...sadly there were few books in my house growing up. I don't know how old I was the first time I saw the movie, but Arney and I watched it just a few days ago. I love the voice of the lady that is really telling the story as it unfolds...she is as real to me as the people acting. I wish more people could see this movie or read the is 2010 and so much of this story is true today...Thank you for this post...I might even read the book!!! Hugs, Mary

Mary said...

I'm shocked that I've never read this book or seen the movie....but I've heard so much about both over the years. Perhaps it was not as popular in Britain. Anyway, having read your excellent
'review' Julie, and also posts by others who have loved the story, I now have it on my list and hope to read it soon.

Hope your Summer is going well and that your heat is not as bad as ours! Roll on Autumn say I.

Hugs - Mary

Eliza said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never read it, but it's now on my list. I'm sure I've seen the film.

Shopgirl said...

Julie, if you get a chance, come see my new baby Granddaugter.
Love, Mary

Annie Jeffries said...

Dear Julie,

What a great post. TKAM has been one of our favorite books and movies for years. The 50 Years celebration book is on my gift list for Don. I'm on the hunt.

Another book in the same vein is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. I just read it this past week. Like the movie, it is a book that can be read over and over, savored and loved. I hope you get a chance to read it if you haven't.

Mickie Mueller Art said...

Wouldn't the world be a better place if more people were like Atticus Finch! thanks for sharing this, I just bought the book for my son.